Review: Louisville Orchestra Offers Discovery in the Old and New

Abrams-Photo-by-Sam-English

Teddy Abrams continues to show that orchestra concerts don’t have to be formulaic, and that discovery manifest in different ways. This past Friday and Saturday evening, we discovered, for example, that a conductor doesn’t have to wear a tuxedo or black socks. We discovered that hearing a 5-7 minute harpsichord improvisation could be interesting and fun, if not a little too long. We discovered the 2014 Grawemeyer winner. Ultimately no one was harmed by these discoveries, that I’m aware of, and we are all the better for them.

First of the evening were selections from Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (The Bourgeois Gentleman), a comédie-ballet from the early Baroque. Teddy Abrams led from the harpsichord (not as Lully would have done, but as most of his contemporaries would have) and the orchestra moved through the score like a jazz band reading through charts. It felt informal, welcoming, unpretentious and fun.

Lack of rehearsal, due to last week’s snow storms, meant no Ravel. It also might explain a handful of messy entrances in the Lully and Vivaldi. Just starting a piece can be the hardest and most nerve-racking part of leading an ensemble. Add the layer of conducting almost entirely from the harpsichord and things get messy sometimes; though messy isn’t necessarily bad.

A welcome addition to this Louisville Orchestra season is a recent Grawemeyer winner, the 2014 awarded On the Guarding of the Heart by Djuro Zivkovich, a Serbian composer living in Sweden. He describes the work as an “instrumental cantata,” paying homage to Bach. Zivkovich’s 20-minute score is an exploration of sound and timbre; the fourteen musicians are frequently required to play outside their traditional sounds, including singing along with their instrument. Overall, the work is a delicate layering of harmony, shifting imperceptibly, showing off an inner beauty.

Though Abrams explained before the piece that structure in this new work is important and clear, to a new listener form and musical architecture are largely inaudible. We are naturally drawn to phrases and ideas that return. Here Zivkovich gives some ideas too little time to settle, while others are afforded too much time, including several insurmountable piano drones. While the Brown Theater was a better venue than Whitney Hall for On the Guarding of the Heart, an even smaller, more resonant hall would have better suited Zivkovich’s (and Lully and Vivaldi’s) music.

For the second half, Teddy Abrams brought in four student violinists from his alma mater, The Curtis Institute of Music, through “Curtis on Tour,” a program that puts students in professional settings around the world.

Each violinist took on one of the Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi, a set of concertos written in 1720 and part of a set of 12 concertos (op. 8). The fact that “Spring” (and all the seasons) are ubiquitous is all the more incredible when you consider that Vivaldi was virtually unknown until the early Twentieth century. Despite their over abundance in playlists and “Best Of” compilations, these seasonal vignettes are inventive and imaginative. The two cheerful seasons, “Spring” and “Autumn,” are contrasted with the more tumultuous “Summer” and “Winter.”

Eunice Kim played a light and fluid “Spring,” delicately bouncing through the score, and smiling the entire time. Dayna Anderson drew on the earthiness of “Summer,” giving her bow a rustic growl here and there. The most flamboyant soloist was Luosha Fang, mostly interested in a dialogue with the orchestra and the audience, moving around the stage like an actor. The “iceman” Nikki Chooi was calculated — each gesture focused and transparent. Chooi found every timbre available in “Winter,” from dark and guttural to airy and shimmering.

The orchestra, playing no small part in these finely crafted concertos, was colorful and sensitive to the score: never plodding and always attuned to the nuance of Vivaldi’s music. Seeing the conductor equally involved in the playing of music changes our level of involvement. We are drawn in closer. The implied barrier between us and them is no longer present, and the music is about all of us.

Review: Louisville Orchestra with Guest Soloist Julian Schwarz

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For those weary of the cold and ice, the Brown Theater was a respite for shovel-worn backs on Saturday evening. Jorge Mester, very aware of the light crowd, was grateful for the “intrepid” audience and musicians in attendance. Perhaps as intrepid was his choice, and command, of three contrasting works: William Schuman’s New England Triptych, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 and Edward Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme “Enigma.”

Aaron Copland is largely credited for creating the “American” sound, much to the exclusion of his contemporaries like Roy Harris, Virgil Thomson and William Schuman. Saturday’s performance was a reminder of Schuman’s qualities as a craftsman and an artist, and that his New England Triptych is as perfectly American as Copland’s ballet scores or the ubiquitous Fanfare for the Common Man. Mester, who recorded some of Schuman’s music during the First Edition days of the orchestra, was at home in this score.

Schuman pays homage one to one of the earliest American composers in his New England Triptych, based on hymns of the revolutionary era composer (and tanner) William Billings. The jaunty first movement was finely articulate, bouncing through Schuman’s abrupt rhythmic shifts. The second movement felt ragged and out of sync, but was redeemed by a blistering third movement that earned a few hearty yelps from the crowd. It’s rare for the timpani to take the first bow after the maestro, but Jim Rago earned it with his sharp and commanding playing. His appreciation for the applause was gracious and nonchalant.

Guest soloist Julian Schwarz believes in an introspective approach to Shostakovich’s first cello concerto. It’s a work that can easily be raucous — Schwarz opted for the melancholic. This is still a work of immense power, and Schwarz’s playing was equally so, but Saturday’s performance was less about the soloist and more about the music. This inward approach worked, mostly. Its only weakness was felt in the first movement through an overly square tempo.

Principal horn Jon Gustely, the only brass instrument in the concerto, gets what amounts to a sub-concerto. Shostakovich was generous, giving the horn melodic lines similar the solo cello and, in some cases, just as prominent. Gustely’s color was warm and complementary to Schwarz, particularly in the gut-wrenching slow movement. The cadenza that follows, a usual break in the orchestral action that gives the soloist (through dazzling virtuosity) some alone time with the audience, is really a five-minute soliloquy. Schwarz once again showed us his understanding of the music with confidence and took a sensitive, patient pace. The final movement was captivating, and while not technically flawless, showed more of Schwarz’s musicality. His on-stage demeanor was especially warm and humble, and further proven when he joined his fellow cellists for Elgar’s Enigma Variations after intermission. It’s extremely rare for a guest soloist to play with the hosting orchestra after they’ve played a concerto (he must have been exhausted).

Edward Elgar purposely encoded a secret in his Variations on an Original Theme “Enigma,” that still have us chasing for meaning and explanation. Thankfully, the music stands on its own, and ultimately provides a touching portrait of Elgar’s personal life through musical portrayals of his friends. The orchestra shifted nimbly between each character study, capturing the playfulness, tenderness or energy of Elgar’s loved ones. Fast string passages in the second variation were problematic and sloppy. Long, lingering phrases were always inviting, with especially lovely solo moments from principals Jack Griffin (viola), Nicholas Finch (cello) and Andrea Levine (clarinet), in order of appearance.

Nimrod, the ninth and most well-known variation, is expected to be the crowning achievement. It builds from a very soft, string chorale to a full orchestra statement of the same, and the Louisville Orchestra brass unleashed every ounce of sound, carrying the orchestra upward as Nimrod reached its summit. The last variation, and Elgar’s self-portrait, reprises a similar exuberance and gave the orchestra one final burst of life.

 

 

Julian Schwarz Debut with Louisville Orchestra

Photo credit: Steve Sherman
Cellist Julian Schwarz performs the first cello concerto by Shostakovich with Jorge Mester and the Louisville Orchestra on February 21, 2015. He stopped by Classical 90.5 to talk with Daniel Gilliam about the concerto, and also played Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro, Op. 70, with Marika Bournaki.

Sebastian Chang and a New Symphony

Sebastian was commissioned by Teddy Abrams and the Louisville Orchestra for a new symphony. Mr. Chang was in town for the performance and talked with Daniel Gilliam about the creative process surrounding his first major work.

Review: Louisville Orchestra Presents World Premiere of Chang Symphony

Sebastian-Chang

Teddy Abrams led the Louisville Orchestra on Thursday and Friday in two symphonies: one premiere and the other one of the most performed since its premiere in 1876. The new work by Sebastian Chang, and commissioned by the LO, is his first major composition, clocking in at around thirty minutes. Titled Classical Symphony, it’s modeled on those of Mozart and Haydn, but with a musical language of today (Prokofiev did the same this with his first symphony).

Chang’s symphony is charming, with moments of nostalgia hinting at Leonard Bernstein and Bernard Herrmann. Chang seems most comfortable writing lush jazz chords or memorable tunes (I’ve remembered the second movement theme since hearing it once at the first rehearsal in December). He is melodically gifted and wants to say something that is personal in every gesture. Chang is also charming, and he smiles a lot, just like his music.

An orchestra at a premiere is a tightly-wound band, which can lead to a mechanical performance. But these performances were full of care and musicality, led by Abrams who didn’t just lead the music, but understood it. Chang’s romantic score gives the bulk of the melodic material to the violins, which at times felt like too much. I kept hoping for some prominent cello lines, or individual wind and brass players showcased. The Whitney Hall audiences were genuinely thrilled, giving Chang a warm, enthusiastic welcome.

At both performances Abrams noted the history of the Louisville Orchestra as a commissioning organization, and how this premiere was continuing that tradition. Crucial in reviving this reputation is funding. The money to commission a composer fairly for their work must come from within the community (individuals, organizations and foundations), even as the orchestra seeks funders on a national level. A composer earns in a year what a high-profile soloist makes in one night. Equally, the composers who are commissioned should be well-known and lesser-known, from around the country and close to home.

Johannes Brahms carefully deliberated over his first symphony for twenty years. Was he a rookie composer and unsure of himself? No, he had written a monumental Requiem, a piano concerto, two lengthy works for orchestra and dozens of chamber works. You could say Brahms developed a complex thanks to Beethoven’s legacy — he, Johannes, was the chosen successor. As a result, we get a symphony that wrestles with demons, finds beauty and playfulness around us, and finally stands on higher ground, like a preacher to the flock, eyes widened and fists shaking.

The orchestra plunged into this complex, emotional narrative, fully invested in every bit of the drama. More tender moments in the music were led by the prinicipal winds and brass. Concertmaster Michael Davis soared at the end of the second movement. Oboist Jennifer Potochnic was sublime, and her richly delivered solos lingered long after their ending. During the symphony’s driving moments, Abrams pushed the orchestra to the edge, almost saying “Let’s try to get even closer!” He was as much a leader as a cheerleader, giving validation to an ensemble that knew exactly what to do. The final movement, an operatic apotheosis, was a statement in and of itself triumphing for Brahms and the Louisville Orchestra.